News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Just being the douchebags we are...

"You mean like this, you presumptuous ass?'
The Internet and the social media make it serious.  Lindsey Stone, pictured, who works for a non-profit organization that assists disabled people with living arrangements, and a friend were visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery, and were inspired to take this photograph.  As an old college professor, who advised student organizations, this kind of humor satirizing the somewhat pompous aspects of society is familiar, and I would probably just regard it as the spirited resistance of the young spiked with a little Saturday-Night-Live wit  and go about my work.  But Lindsey made a huge error.  She put this on Facebook, and, as the social epidemiologists say, it went viral. The protests against the perceived disrespect of those who have served and died were too much for her bosses to ignore.  Although she said, "Whoa whoa whoa... wait. This is just us, being the douchebags that we are, challenging authority in general. Much like the pic posted the night before, of me smoking right next to a no smoking sign. OBVIOUSLY we meant NO disrespect to people that serve or have served our country."  One group even started a Facebook page dedicated to the purpose of getting her fired.  So, she was.  

This is just one of many, many examples of people who have been fired from their jobs for something published about them on the social media.  A school teacher was fired for publishing a picture that showed her saluting with a beer while on a European vacation, And there are many examples of people getting fired for saying something insulting and potentially damaging about their employers.  

An employer may deserve all the trash one can say about it and it may well be true, but it has the right to fire anyone who insults and undercuts the stated purposes of the enterprise.  In years past, one could vent about an employer over drinks after work and not be in much danger of having employers learn about it or act upon it, but the social media provides a huge audience and documentation of what one has said or portrayed.  If it runs counter to the stated purpose of the organization, it is legitimate reason for dismissal.

The rules have changed.  Once the standards of speech and humor where determined by the company one kept.  One knew when one could be profane and parodic and satiric and where one had to observe the decorum of the fuddy-duddies and the repressive bigots.  One did not, for example, tell dirty jokes at Luther League.  And one knew at which Luther League activities a little bawdiness and sarcasm about propriety would be appreciated.  Spirit of occasion ruled the level of decorum.  

The Internet and social media have changed the rules.  They have turned judgments of and responses to  social statements over to the mob.  The cyber lynch mob.  As in the case of Lindsey Stone, people who don't know her but are looking for some pretext to impose their will and inflict harm on other people can organize a "flash mob" and intimidate her bosses and demand her dismissal by saying she "disrespected every man and woman far greater than herself with the actions shown in [the] profile picture."  I take Ms. Stone's actions as a response to being regarded as being so stupid and obtuse that a metal sign is needed to elicit some reverence and respect at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and not to hold any boisterous celebrations over the remains of the unknown.  To  me, Ms. Stone was responding to an asinine sign.  Nothing is more insulting than when someone presumes one is a social and mental retard needing instructions on how to conduct oneself.  But Ms. Stone's employer did not see it that way and decided to act on the outrage of the cyber lynch mob.   

Ms. Stone should probably be smart enough to know that her parodic response to an authoritarian sign would be interpreted and promoted as an insult to all the dead soldiers at Arlington.  Once you publish something on the Internet, it is at the mercy of the dumb and the mean.  The Internet has given the dumb and mean equal voice with the informed and good-willed.  More often than not, dumb and mean wins.  After the recent election campaign, however, it is clear that what divides America is the right to be dumb and mean vs. the right to know and apply the values have that evolved into what is codified in the nation's founding documents and  in the philosophies of the religions that inspired the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice.  That brings us to the significance of the sacking of Ms. Stone over a Facebook picture.  

If people are to be judged wholly and held responsible for things they put on the Internet that offend someone somewhere, then we have a lot of outrage to excite and firing to be done.  A prime place to start regards who is shaping our public education and the kind of people who presume to deliver it.  Bernie Hunhoff, publisher and editor of South Dakota Magazine and a state representative from Yankton, put a post on Facebook that addressed a issue in South Dakota education:

"A friend just told me we are not only 50th in teacher pay in SD, but 11% behind the 49th state (ND). He thinks we're facing a tremendous shortage in a few years as the baby boomer teachers retire. Teacher retention and recruitment of the best college students to the profession looks like the top economic development issue for the 2013 legislative session.

The post received more than 70 responses, some of which were very revealing and called into question the competence of some individuals in holding the jobs they have.  One response said that South Dakota students seem to be achieving well, and the teachers  seem to be performing reasonably well, so why worry about teacher pay, even if it is the lowest in the nation?  That is a common attitude in South Dakota, one that seems to be dominant.  The comment was endorsed by the host of a radio show.
"For as long as SD students achieve at the level they have, WHY invest more money in teacher pay? There may be a day when additional funding is needed to keep SD students on top, but it doesn't appear to be today.
One would expect a person who broadcasts information over the media to be somewhat informed about what he is saying.  The most reliable gauge of how students compare with other states is the ACT test.  The tests administered to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements are not tested and reliable indicators of comparative student achievement.  On the ACT test, South Dakota ranks 23rd among the 50 states for student achievement. Apparently the radio personallty thinks that achievement near the median signals that "SD students [are] on top."

More significant is the fact that in South Dakota, 81 percent of high school students take the ACT test.  That means we do not have comparative achievement scores showing how 19 percent of the students are doing.  Five states, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyomin, require 100 percent of their students to take the ACT to measure achievement.  The full comparative report on state achievement scores can be reviewed at the ACT website.   

 One could, I suppose, put up a Facebook page urging listeners to boycott WNAX because its radio show hosts give out faulty information.  Or one could put up a page insisting that the host in question be replaced by someone who knows what he is talking about. Or one can shrug and say that is the state of our media and we just have to learn how to live with wrong information and the policies based upon it.

A woman who represents herself as an English teacher also chimes in on the conversation with a rationale for maintaining the low teacher pay in South Dakota;  :
"Merit pay and critical subject matter shortages RL 16 did not pass. Why? The way I see it, the teachers spoke loudly against it. They feel everyone should have equal pay. I used to think that, too, until I taught every student in grades 8-12 (English)..other teachers taught electives where class size was 5-9 students. Many times I had 6 classes and others had 5 classes. A couple of things come to mind: schools are businesses; that is why they hire business managers. Most businesses in our society do not pay people the same. Some are promoted at a higher salary rate than the person sitting to the right or left of him. Some are moved to private offices AND given more money. The second thing that comes to mind is that when teachers get into the profession, we pretty much know what we are going to be paid. We all have choices. If we are not happy in our profession because we feel we are not compensated enough, then it is time to choose another career that monetarily matches our wants and our llife style. Most teachers I know are proud to be in the profession and work is about the students. Teachers with higher pay do not necessarily produce smarter students."
There is much to carp about regarding the level of expression and reasoning in this published comment.  And one can raise a legitimate concern about an educator advocating that a school should be run on the basis of a business model,  a bad business model which practices discrimination and imposes inequality on its workforce.  Those sentiments are worthy of a Facebook page protesting a school system which allows such to influence students and expose them to values which are contrary to all the purposes of public education.  

If I had children in this person's class, they would no longer be there on Monday morning.  The last  thing children need is exposure and indoctrination into the values on which bullying, discrimination, and the imposition of inquality are based.  And there is the matter of competence in framing an argument and the information on which it is  based.  

My ultimate appeal is to organizations like the SDEA and other professional education organizations to follow up the defeat of some wretchedly stupid laws that were based upon the kind of flawed and false information that is brought to bear in the comments following Bernie's Facebook post.  The formation of education polciy must be returned to the educators who know something about the history, the purpose, and the delivery of education.  School boards need to be returned to the function of serving as a conduit of information between the professional staffs and the public.  Running schools like a business in the way suggested by the English teacher runs counter to any standards of freedom, equality, and justice that has operated in the formation of American education.  

Consigning teachers to the status of low-paid indentured servants refutes every hope and goal in that destination we call the American dream.  In such consignment, kids will be conditioned to be silent, respectful, and dull.  Sometimes it is healthy for the young to be noisy and disrespectful.  And funny. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States